I was speaking with one of my friends recently and they were proudly telling me that they signed up for their utility’s 100% solar rate plan. I played dumb and asked them what that meant. They said that for this program, they pay a little extra and their utility supplies them with solar power. Going a little further, I asked “what happens when you use electricity at night?” They hadn’t really thought about it, but now they were curious.

I explained that when I was recently visiting my parents in Indiana, I saw my dad do something he does every month – he goes down to the basement with his pencil and paper, looks at his solar inverter and writes down how much electricity was produced. Then he enters that value into a web portal where he sells his solar renewable energy credits (SRECs). He often sells the SRECs to other states, which means sometimes a utility in Maryland gets the credit for the clean energy produced in Indiana.

I paused to clarify – my dad doesn’t sell clean electricity. He sells the rights to claim credit for that clean energy. This forms the basis of the Renewable Portfolio Standard, which has been a very effective mechanism to help many states meet their clean energy goals—and this is also how your utility provides you with a 100% clean energy rate plan. It procures a certain amount of clean energy itself and then it offsets your additional usage through mechanisms like RECs.

Based from the look on her face, I thought I had totally confused my friend. She said, “No, I’m not confused. I’m dissatisfied. It seems a little indirect – like I’m choosing clean energy in a round-a-bout way.” She wasn’t confused, she was exactly right. She had also totally taken my bait!

“Funny you should say that,” I said. “I just happen to be working on a project that provides a new way to choose clean energy in a more direct way.”

Itron Idea Labs is using near-real-time grid emissions data to enable end customers to use electricity when emissions are lowest in their region. Let’s say you have a smart thermostat – we know that your air conditioner needs to run 20 minutes to keep your house comfortable for the next two hours. Your air conditioner can either run continuously for 20 minutes or it can spread it out – 5 minutes here and 5 minutes there – based on when emissions are lowest. If enough of your neighbors do this too, the power plants with the highest emissions will run less. Lots of small changes add up to big emissions reductions.

As it turns out, providing this service to customers also helps solve several emerging problems for utilities. For one, if we aren’t paying close attention to emissions, operating battery storage devices can make the grid dirtier. This is exactly what happened with batteries deployed through California’s Self Generation Incentive Program (SGIP). A November 2017 report by Itron showed that because the emissions content of electricity is not directly reflected in the price of electricity, batteries operating on price signal alone could (and did) increase emissions.

Controlling smart devices like thermostats, electric vehicles, battery storage, refrigerators and pool pumps according to price, local grid needs and emissions content can have many benefits for utilities. In addition to the battery storage example, this service can be used to reduce renewables curtailment, increase the effectiveness of demand response programs, improve overall grid flexibility, and perhaps most importantly, improve customer engagement by directly involving them in the decarbonization of electricity.

Itron Idea Labs is focused on bringing new, innovative businesses, products and services to Itron customers. For more information, click here.

Luke Scheidler
Itron Idea Labs - Itron
Mr. Scheidler is a clean energy professional with 10 years of experience in public and private sector research and consulting to utilities, government agencies, and other stakeholders. He has extensive experience across a wide range of supply and demand side energy resources including solar PV, solar thermal, wind, combined heat and power, storage, demand response, and energy efficiency. His expertise with these technologies has been leveraged for potential studies, market assessments, cost-effectiveness analysis, program evaluation, policy insight, and utility and corporate strategic planning. Mr. Scheidler works for Itron Idea Labs, a startup business and idea incubator within Itron. Here, he is responsible for soliciting and developing new and innovative business opportunities from our utility partners, the startup community, and our own internal resources.